Tuesday, December 03, 2013

The Advil Calendar Year 3 Day 3: PUT UP OR SHUT UP EDITION

No time for kvetching or bragging or making embarrassing confessions - the way I do - we've got a lot of work before us today so HERE WE GO:


The one on the corner with the round window was Max's.
We always called the stuff "Vititas."

When I and all my friends lived in the down-but-not-out-oh-wait-no-it-was-pretty-much-out Baltimore neighborhood called SoWeBo, we could get a shot of it in Max's bar, and that's what we asked for. Vititas.

Max's bar was a dark hole-in-the-wall across from Hollins Market, one of the seven municipal markets in Baltimore. Max's bar had always been a cop bar, but when Max took it over, he booked bands and served extremely cheap beer (including "mystery beer" - whatever the distributor had left over - at 75 cents a cup) and started attracting a younger, more broke crowd. Needless to say, Max ran it into the ground and then later it was a sushi place and now I think it's boarded up.

"Vititas" was a golden liquor in an unlabeled bottle that Max bought from the guys down at the Lithuanian Hall, and he couldn't always get it. He served tiny little shots of it, and if you knew what you were doing you sipped it, because it tasted like fields of flowers warmed by the sun, and also like you were probably going to get lucky in about one minute. Luscious - like sex and Christmas all at once.

This was the early- or mid-90's, and I never saw it after that, though I heard rumors.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a party and took a pitcher of a little drink I made - equal parts apple cider, Jack Daniels, and cinnamon Tuaca. Some of that crystallized ginger floating around in there. I don't recommend the cinnamon Tuaca. I bought it by mistake. Regular Tuaca cannot be improved upon.

Evil. 4 bucks a shot at Mum's.
So this guy Spoon at the party tries my drink and he says, "This tastes like evil!" Which I figured meant Oh boy I better not drink too much of this, but in fact he meant it tasted like this stuff he makes that he calls Evil. I had heard of Evil. I knew there was a bottle of it behind the bar at Mum's in Federal Hill, but I didn't know what was in it. "It's just Everclear and honey and about $40 worth of spices," Spoon said. "I got the recipe from the guys who make it!"

Had to be the same stuff, right?

I did a little searching, but given that I could barely remember what we called it, and it's not like you can google "Evil," all I found was a Straight Dope comment thread and - jackpot! a 2005 article in Baltimore's City Paper by Van Smith. Van and I barely know each other, but we have about a billion friends in common. That happens a lot in Baltimore. In fact, Van's first taste of Evil happened in a very specific place:
"My first encounter with viryta was in early 1996, when a series of snow and ice storms incapacitated the city. My piss-yellow Dodge Diplomat was encased in the tundralike mixture, so I was walking to work. As I passed Hollins Market, a familiar face poked out of an open window on the second floor above the Corner Coffee House. It was a young fellow from the neighborhood, of proud Lithuanian stock, and he was beckoning me upstairs for a taste of ethnic pride."
What?! That was my apartment! Well, I'd moved to Brooklyn the year before, but still. I had managed the Corner Coffee House and lived in that upstairs apartment for a while. I had hung out that very window taking pictures when the DEA busted the crackhouse next door.

The Corner Coffee House, early 90's, after we'd spruced it up with blue and yellow paint.
Painting by Tamara van something I can't remember and wish I could.

'“Hey, Van!” he shouted out. “Come on up! My grandmother’s cooking up a batch of vitatis.” That’s what I thought he said—“vitatis”—and that was how I referred to his grandma’s potion until just recently.'
See? We all called it that! But the mystery deepens - when John Ellsberry (another friend Van and I have in common) returned from a trip to Lithuania, he told Van that nobody there had ever heard of Viryta. So Van consulted an expert:
“It was the Lithuanian community in the United States that discovered viryta, using their own ingenuity,” explains Vytautas “Vito” Makauskas, the 78-year-old erstwhile proprietor of the Harbor Way, who in 2003 gave the bar—which his mother had given to him in 1952—to his 32-year-old daughter, Anna “Spooky” Makauskas. “So it is not Lithuanian—though the botanicals in it come from Lithuania.”
Hm. Not to call Vito an unreliable narrator, but I needed to fact-check that one. I'd seen recipes online for "krupnikas," a homemade honey liqueur that sounded exactly like Viryta. But "krupnikas" sounded like a Polish word to me. I needed my own expert, and luckily, had one on hand.

My cousin's girlfriend Nida is active in the Lithuanian-American community and an authority on that community's history. Turns out, she also makes her own batch of Viryta every year. Can my cousins pick 'em or what?

"Krupnikas," says Nida, "is Lithuanian, Krupnik is Polish. Viryta and Krupnikas are one and the same. The Baltimore prewar Lithuanian emigres started to call it Viryta, from the Lithuanian "virti" to cook or boil. Most Lithuanians outside of Baltimore don't know what Viryta is or if they have heard of it don't realize it is Krupnikas. There are several Lithuanian food groups on Facebook that are currently discussing the topic and sharing recipes."

Case - BAM! - closed. Why didn't I just ask Nida in the first place? Vito, by the way, was back behind the bar at the Harbor Way as recently as a couple of years ago. He served my husband a Kalnapilis beer and a thimbleful of Lithuanian sunshine and told him a tale of woe - the bar had fallen on hard times and last I heard it's now for sale.

So that's what it's called.

But how do you make it? Nida shared her recipe with me, and I found one or two on the Internet, and I knew I needed an entire vat of the stuff for our New Years Day Pig Roast (it is COOOLD at 8am when we're starting up the pig!), so I tripled the proportions - but I didn't want to experiment too much because a) people have been making this stuff for a century and who am I to argue and b) Everclear will blow the hell up if it gets too hot.

And this is what I did:

Just pull out the whole damn spice rack.
3 quarts Everclear
6 lbs honey
6 cinnamon sticks
3 vanilla beans, split*
1 1/2 whole nutmeg
30 whole cloves
30 whole allspice berries
30 cardamom seeds, cracked
3 T caraway seeds
a 2" piece of ginger sliced thin lengthwise**
thin peel of one orange
thin peel of one lemon
* Nida says, "I don't bother with the vanilla bean, at $10 a bean I haven't noticed any substantial taste difference. This batch was the first time I used vanilla extract. I didn't use the full tbsp, I went with a hefty tsp [usual subst. is 1T = 1 bean]. Seems to have worked. I broke out a bottle for a party I went to yesterday and it was a hit."
** This was all the ginger I had on hand - but this is the one area where all the recipes I saw differed, some calling for 4 thin slices per quart of Everclear, some wanting 4 one-inch pieces for the same amount.
  1. I used my cleaver to crack the nutmeg and my fingers to crack the cardamom.
  2. Drop into a stock pot: cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, cardamom, and caraway. Let 'em heat up and get a little fragrant.
  3. Add 6 cups of water, the vanilla beans, ginger, and peels.
    Here's a cute tip - put the end of your wooden spoon in the water at this point and then mark the water level with a Sharpie. Because now we're going to add another 6 cups of water and let this floodwater simmer until it's reduced by half - and in a big pot "reduced by half" is not that easy to visualize.
  4. Put the honey into another large heavy pot and bring to a boil. Important tip from Nida which I did NOT PAY ENOUGH ATTENTION TO: DO NOT leave this pot unattended! It will boil over and make a giant mess. So - what are you doing? You are standing there watching honey come to a boil. That's right. Just think about things for a little while. Get a slotted spoon and skim off the thick foam that forms. When the surface remains fairly clear, move the pot away from the stove.

    Oh the strain.
  5. Once your spice liquid is reduced by half and is cool enough to mess with, pass it through a strainer and into the honey. Stir. Add the vanilla extract if you didn't spring for a bean.
  6. Now the booze. CAREFULLY pour it into the honey spice mixture. Stir. Put the pot back on the stove, cover tightly, heat gently on low heat for 15 minutes, taking care that it does NOT boil or even simmer.
  7. Remove from heat and let cool overnight in the pot, covered tightly. The next day pour into bottles.
    NOTE: BE NOT STUPID about the pouring into the bottles. Don't pour right from your giant pot - pour it into a pitcher or something that has a lip and a handle first, and then you can manage the whole funnel / bottle situation without knocking everything over.
    This public service announcement brought to you by several sticky disasters involving homemade hot sauce. The more you know.

Last night it smelled like it would kill you, but this morning was another story.
Ain't that always the case? Wait that makes no sense.

Now. There is disagreement among my sources about whether and how many times to strain the "finished" product. There is disagreement about when it's finished, in fact. Nida thinks the stuff I made tonight will be drinkable by xmas, but many sources think it's better the longer you wait. We'll see. I'm torn - I am afraid of it (caraway! Everclear for Christ's sake!), but also very excited.

MORE PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE: Since I was in the kitchen anyway, I put up a batch of Pickled Oysters, a recipe which I had spent some time fooling with about ten years ago, inspired by "Aunt India's Recipe" in Superior Recipes by Mrs. I. T. Mann, copyright 1923 and the "Myrtle Grove Pickled Oysters" recipe in Maryland's Way. I know it sounds weird. But they are so good.

Pickled Oysters
1 pint oysters
3/4 c white vinegar
3 to 4 cloves garlic
1/2 t mustard seeds
1 lemon sliced thin
1/2 t salt
1T peppercorns
mace - if you've got whole mace, use 3 blades, if not, 1/4 t ground
  1. Ok. Put the oysters and their liquid (liquor, it's called) into a small saucepan. Heat gently. You are poaching these suckers just until their edges are ruffled and uncomfortably labial-looking, and their bodies lose all translucence.
  2. Dip 'em out of the hot liquid with a slotted spoon and slide 'em right into an ice bath. When they are cool enough to touch, place them on a large platter to drain. They are too delicate for a rack and will adhere to paper towels, so just a plate. When they're perfectly cool, put them in a Mason jar with half the lemon slices. Pour off the liquor and set it in the fridge to cool.
  3. Then put all the rest of the ingredients into another smallish saucepan (or the same one, doesn't matter). Bring to a boil and then turn off the heat.
  4. When both liquids are cold, pull out and discard the lemon, then pour the liquor and the vinegar mixture over the oysters in equal quantities until the jar is just about filled. Let the spices from the vinegar go in too. You'll have a lot of liquid left over - I save that in a jar for Bloody Marys.
These will keep at least two weeks, just getting better. We will be speaking of vodka sometime soon, and that is when we will be happy that we pickled some oysters.

And I mean - if you think pickled oysters are weird, Mrs. Mann has some other oyster recipes that are... Skewered Oysters: oysters and kidneys on a stick, broiled, served on watercress with fish sauce. Scalloped Oysters: crushed crackers and oysters in layers in a round casserole, wet with milk, sprinkled with salt and butter, bake an hour. Wow actually...

So tomorrow... tomorrow will be the 4th, it's a Wednesday, today was a lot of work - oh I know! tomorrow is EXCITING GUEST WEDNESDAY! We're going to have an EXCITING GUEST! telling us all about a traditional drink that is a PAIN in the ASS.